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How Long Has it Been Since Your State Raised Its Gas Tax?



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State gas tax policies have changed a lot in recent months, which makes two new fact sheets from our partners at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) especially useful in understanding where states stand on this issue.

The first fact sheet shows that 24 states have gone a decade or more without increasing their gas tax rate, and that 16 states have gone two decades or more.  This lack of action has allowed for a significant drop in the purchasing power of these states’ gas tax dollars as the cost of construction and maintenance has increased.  The worst gas tax procrastinators are Alaska (43.9 years), Virginia (27.3 years), Oklahoma (26.9 years), Iowa (25.3 years), Mississippi (25.3 years), and South Carolina (25.3 years). 

The fact sheet also shows that four states are “celebrating” gas tax anniversaries this week.  As of April 1st, it has been exactly 18 years since Idaho and Missouri raised their gas tax rates, while South Dakota and Wisconsin have gone 15 and 8 years, respectively.  The only state raising its gas tax this April 1st is Vermont, where the rate is rising by less than a tenth of a penny per gallon.

The second fact sheet from ITEP puts a spotlight on those 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, that actually levy a smarter gas tax.  Rather than going years on end without a change in their gas tax rates, these states allow for modest increases in their tax rates each year through the use of a “variable-rate” tax that rises with inflation or gas prices. 

As a result of reforms enacted in four states last year, a majority of the country’s population now lives in a state where the gas tax rate is “indexed” in this way.  This isn’t a radical idea.  More states, and the federal government, should take a serious look at switching to a variable-rate gas tax.

Read the fact sheets:

How Long Has it Been Since Your State Raised Its Gas Tax?

Most Americans Live in States with Variable-Rate Gas Taxes

 



Grover Norquist cares a lot about Tennessee taxes. You should too.



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(Blog Post Originally Appeared in The Hill)

It’s not breaking news that partisanship has gridlocked Congress these last few years, and most policy change has occurred at the state level. State legislatures have debated and enacted laws affecting issues as varied as minimum wage, infrastructure investment, education, environmental protection, and voting rights.

National groups seeking to cut taxes for the wealthy are well aware that policy change in states may be their best bet right now, and they’ve set their sights high. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, as well as Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity and other conservative groups, continue to advocate for full repeal of state income taxes, with an eye toward setting a national trend in motion.

So far, most proposals to do away with state income taxes have run into a brick wall called reality after legislators learned that repeal would mean damaging cuts in public investments and significant tax hikes on the poor and middle-class. Proposals for income tax repeal recently failed in Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. The only state in U.S. history to repeal its personal income tax is Alaska, which threw out the tax in the 1980s when it was awash in newfound oil tax revenues.

Now it seems anti-tax proponents have found a test case in Tennessee. The Volunteer State has a regressive tax code built mainly around the sales tax. Unlike most states, it doesn’t have a general income tax on salaries and wages. But it does levy the Hall Tax, a modest 6 percent assessment on investment income that largely falls on wealthy Tennesseans with large stock portfolios. In recent months, a number of right-wing groups have spent significant resources backing a bill that would repeal this tax.

These groups are toeing their typical line, saying repeal will make Tennessee “economically competitive.” But the mediocre experiences of states that have recently cut income taxes don’t support that assertion.

Moreover, the vast majority of Tennesseans don’t pay the Hall Tax. The law exempts business income, wages, pensions, Social Security, and most other types of income Tennesseans earn. Only people with more than $2,500 in dividends, interest, and certain capital gains pay anything at all. Low- and moderate-income residents over age 65 are entirely exempt.

Given the Hall Tax’s limited scope, it generates only about 1 percent of the state’s revenue, making it low-hanging fruit for tax repeal advocates who have met with failure in states where personal income taxes generate significantly more revenue. 

While repealing the Hall Tax could yield fruit for the no-tax agenda, it’s not in Tennesseans’ best interest. My colleagues and I at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy produced an analysis that found the top 5 percent of earners would receive a whopping 63 percent of the benefits of the tax cut. Another 23 would go to the federal government because residents who pay the tax would no longer be able to write-off those payments on their federal tax returns. The remaining 14 percent of revenue lost by the cut would be spread thinly among the bottom 95 percent of households.

Although most ordinary working Tennesseans would see no benefit to their pocketbooks, they certainly would see the effect on state and local budgets. The $260 million revenue loss resulting from Hall Tax repeal would require Tennessee to scale back investments in education, infrastructure, and other services vitally important to the state’s success. Local communities would be hit particularly hard since more than one out of every three dollars generated by the tax goes to local government budgets. And if communities respond to this revenue loss by increasing property taxes, many Tennesseans could see their overall tax bills rise under this so-called “tax cut.”

The vagaries of Tennessee legislation may seem inconsequential for people outside the Volunteer State. But anyone concerned about how states and local governments fund basic services should be worried that national anti-tax groups have set their sights on repealing the Hall Tax. Tennessee isn’t this train’s first stop, and it won’t be the last.



Gas Tax Remains High on Many States' Agendas for 2014



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Note to Readers: This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014.  This series, written by the staff of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), highlights state proposals for “tax swaps,” tax cuts, and tax reforms.  This post focuses specifically on proposals to increase or reform state gasoline taxes.

Six states and the District of Columbia enacted long-overdue gas tax increases or reforms last year, despite the tough politics involved in raising the price drivers pay at the pump.  Will 2014 bring the same level of legislative activity on the gas tax?  Maybe not; but there are a number of states where the issue is receiving serious attention.

Delaware: Governor Jack Markell of Delaware is pushing for a 10 cent increase in his state’s gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in over 19 years.  The idea faces an uphill battle in the legislature, but without the increase the Delaware Department of Transportation’s capital budget will have to be slashed by about 33 percent next year.  Delaware’s House Minority leader would rather raid the state’s general fund budget (most of which goes toward education and health care) as opposed to addressing the state’s transportation revenue problems directly through reforming the gas tax.

Iowa: Governor Terry Branstad isn’t going to lead the fight for a gas tax increase, but he won’t veto one, either, if it makes it to his desk. Last week, an Iowa House subcommittee unanimously passed a 10 cent gas tax hike just a few hours before Branstad made clear his intention to remain on the sidelines during this important election-year tax debate.

Kentucky: Governor Steve Beshear wants to reverse a 1.5 cent gas tax cut that went into effect last month as a result of falling gas prices (Kentucky is one of eighteen states where the tax rate changes alongside either gas prices or inflation).  Doing so would raise about $45 million in additional funds to invest in the state’s transportation infrastructure.  And putting a “floor” on the gas tax to prevent further declines in the tax rate could avoid up to $100 million in funding cuts in the next two years.

New Hampshire: The chair of New Hampshire’s Senate Transportation Committee wants to raise the gas tax and index it to inflation.  The tax has been stuck at 18 cents per gallon for over twenty-two years, and the commissioner of the state’s Department of Transportation is optimistic that could finally change this year.  Governor Maggie Hassan hasn’t been a major player in the push for a higher gas tax, but it seems likely she would sign an increase if it made it to her desk.

Utah: Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser is rightly concerned about the fact that “more and more money is coming out of the state's general fund for transportation,” and would like to reform the state’s gas tax to provide transportation with a sustainable revenue stream of its own.  Familiar concerns about not wanting to hike the gas tax in an election year have been raised, but Governor Gary Herbert seems to realize that some kind of change to the gas tax is needed.  To provide some context to this debate, we recently found that Utah’s gas tax is currently at an all-time low, after adjusting for inflation.

Washington: Last year’s unsuccessful push to raise the gas tax in Washington State has spilled over into the current legislative session.  Governor Jay Inslee still supports raising the tax, and House and Senate leaders have spent a significant amount of time trying to cobble together an acceptable compromise.

But while these six states are the most likely to act this year, they’re hardly the only places where the gas tax is generating a lot of interest.  In Oklahoma, both of the state’s largest newspapers have urged lawmakers to consider gas tax reform, as has the Oklahoma Policy Institute and the Oklahoma Academy.  In Minnesota, the commissioner of the Department of Transportation wants to see the gas tax rise on a yearly basis, and a coalition has been formed seeking more revenue for transportation.  The chairman of the South Carolina Senate Finance Committee supports a gas tax hike, as does the chair of New Mexico’s Transportation and Public Works Committee, some members of New Jersey’s legislature, and the editorial boards of both New Mexico’s and New Jersey’s largest newspapers.  And in Michigan, Governor Snyder’s laudable attempt to raise the gas tax last year has stalled, though it remains a topic of discussion in the Wolverine State.

Altogether, thirty-two states levy unsustainable flat-rate gas taxes, twenty-four states have gone a decade or more without raising their gas tax, and sixteen of those states have gone two decades or more without an increase.  With so many states reliant on outdated gas tax structures, there’s little doubt that reforming the tax will remain a major topic of discussion for the foreseeable future.

Photo via herzogbr Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 



What to Watch for in 2014 State Tax Policy



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Note to Readers: This is the first of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014.  This post provides an overview of key trends and top states to watch in the coming year.  Over the coming weeks, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight state tax proposals and take a deeper look at the four key policy trends likely to dominate 2014 legislative sessions and feature prominently on the campaign trail. Part two discusses the trend of tax shift proposals. Part three discusses the trend of tax cut proposals. Part four discusses the trend of gas tax increase proposals. Part five discusses the trend of real tax reform proposals.

2013 was a year like none we have seen before when it comes to the scope and sheer number of tax policy plans proposed and enacted in the states.  And given what we’ve seen so far, 2014 has the potential to be just as busy.

In a number of statehouses across the country last year, lawmakers proposed misguided schemes (often inspired by supply-side ideology) designed to sharply reduce the role of progressive personal and corporate income taxes, and in some cases replace them entirely with higher sales taxes.  There were also a few good faith efforts at addressing long-standing structural flaws in state tax codes through base broadening, providing tax breaks to working families, or increasing taxes paid by the wealthiest households.

The good news is that the most extreme and destructive proposals were halted.  However, several states still enacted costly and regressive tax cuts, and we expect lawmakers in many of those states to continue their quest to eliminate income taxes in the coming years.  

The historic elections of 2012, which left most states under solid one-party control (many of those states with super majorities), are a big reason why so many aggressive tax proposals got off the ground in 2013.  We expect elections to be a driving force shaping tax policy proposals again in 2014 as voters in 36 states will be electing governors this November, and most state lawmakers are up for re-election as well.

We also expect to see a continuation of the four big tax policy trends that dominated 2013:

  • Tax shifts or tax swaps:  These proposals seek to scale back or repeal personal and corporate income taxes, and generally seek to offset some, or all, of the revenue loss with a higher sales tax.

    At the end of last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made it known that he wants to give serious consideration to eliminating his state’s income tax and to hiking the sales tax to make up the lost revenue.  Even if elimination is out of reach this year, Walker and other Wisconsin lawmakers are still expected to push for income tax cuts.  Look for lawmakers in Georgia and South Carolina to debate similar proposals.  And, count on North Carolina and Ohio lawmakers to attempt to build on tax shift plans partially enacted in 2013.  
  • Tax cuts:  These proposals range from cutting personal income taxes to reducing property taxes to expanding tax breaks for businesses.  Lawmakers in more than a dozen states are considering using the revenue rebounds we’ve seen in the wake of the Great Recession as an excuse to enact permanent tax cuts.  

    Missouri
    lawmakers, for example, wasted no time in filing a new slate of tax-cutting bills at the start of the year with the hope of making good on their failed attempt to reduce personal income taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents last year.  Despite the recommendations from a Nebraska tax committee to continue studying the state’s tax system for the next year, rather than rushing to enact large scale cuts, several gubernatorial candidates as well as outgoing governor Dave Heineman are still seeking significant income and property tax cuts this session.  And, lawmakers in Michigan are debating various ways of piling new personal income tax cuts on top of the large business tax cuts (PDF) enacted these last few years.  We also expect to see major tax cut initiatives this year in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.

    Conservative lawmakers are not alone in pushing a tax-cutting agenda.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s gubernatorial candidates are making tax cuts a part of their campaign strategies.  
  • Real Reform:  Most tax shift and tax cut proposals will be sold under the guise of tax reform, but only those plans that truly address state tax codes’ structural flaws, rather than simply eliminating taxes, truly deserve the banner of “reform”.

    Illinois and Kentucky are the states with the best chances of enacting long-overdue reforms this year.  Voters in Illinois will likely be given the chance to convert their state's flat income tax rate to a more progressive, graduated system.  Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has renewed his commitment to enacting sweeping tax reform that will address inequities and inadequacies in his state’s tax system while raising additional revenue for education.  Look for lawmakers in the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Utah to consider enacting or enhancing tax policies that reduce the tax load currently shouldered by low- and middle-income households.
  • Gas Taxes and Transportation Funding:  Roughly half the states have gone a decade or more without raising their gas tax, so there’s little doubt that the lack of growth in state transportation revenues will remain a big issue in the year ahead. While we’re unlikely to see the same level of activity as last year (when half a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, enacted major changes to their gasoline taxes), there are a number of states where transportation funding issues are being debated. We’ll be keeping close tabs on developments in Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, Utah, and Washington State, among other places.

Check back over the next month for more detailed posts about these four trends and proposals unfolding in a number of states.  



In New Mexico, "Hold Harmless" Does Not Mean What You Think It Means



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When state governments force cuts in local tax collections, as New Mexico did almost a decade ago under Governor Bill Richardson, these cuts are often accompanied by a “hold harmless” promise, under which locals will (in theory) be reimbursed for the taxes they are no longer allowed to collect. But the hold harmless pledge often works out to be what Mary Poppins called a “pie crust promise”—easily made and easily broken. Just nine years after Governor Richardson burnished his tax-cutting credentials by exempting groceries from local (and state) gross receipts taxes—while simultaneously implementing a “hold harmless” provision so that locals wouldn’t feel the pain of losing such a large chunk of their tax base—a law is now in place that will completely phase out the hold-harmless aid to locals between 2015 and 2030.  A recent Santa Fe New Mexican editorial correctly rakes the legislature over the coals for its “fickle” attitude toward fiscally-strapped local governments.

The lesson for local policymakers facing the threat of state-mandated tax cuts? Hold-harmless provisions should be a basic component of any such cuts—but the state aid resulting from these provisions will be a all-too-tempting target for state lawmakers whenever the economy slows.



Gas Tax Reform Draws Close in Pennsylvania as Debate Continues in 3 More States



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Update: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed the gas tax increase described below into law on November 25, 2013.

One of 2013’s biggest state tax policy issues—the gasoline tax—continues to make headlines long after most state legislative sessions have come to a close for the year.  We’ve already written about how lawmakers in Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia enacted gas tax increases or reforms earlier this year.  But within just the last week, four more states have been in the news with high-profile proposals to raise their own gas taxes—including Pennsylvania, which appears to be on the verge of both increasing and reforming its tax.  Here’s what’s been happening:  

Pennsylvania is one of a small number of states where the legislature is still in session (most state sessions ended this spring).  This week, both the Pennsylvania House and Senate passed a bill that would gradually raise the gas tax by allowing it to rise alongside gas prices, much like an ordinary sales tax.  This is not a new idea in the Keystone State.  Prior to 2006, Pennsylvania’s gas tax actually functioned in exactly this manner, though the 32.3 cent tax has since run up against a poorly designed gas tax “cap” that the legislature is now seeking to lift.  When combined with increases in vehicle registration fees, license fees, and traffic fines, the overall package is expected to raise $2.3 billion per year for roads and transit.  As of this writing the bill needs to be approved by the House one more time before going to Governor Tom Corbett’s desk where it is expected to be signed into law.

In Washington State, The Olympian is reporting that “a bipartisan transportation revenue package now looks possible” after the coalition of lawmakers in control of the state senate backed an 11.5 cent gas tax increase.  The tax increase would be phased-in over the course of three years and is actually somewhat larger than the 10 cent increase sought by Governor Jay Inslee and House Democrats earlier this year.  As we explained in June, Washington’s gas tax would remain relatively low by historical standards even if the Governor’s 10 cent increase had been enacted into law.  The same is true of an 11.5 cent increase.  Lawmakers could potentially act on the 11.5 cent plan within the next few weeks if a special legislative session is called.

Utah business leaders, local officials, and other stakeholders are continuing to make the case that public investments in infrastructure will help the state’s economy succeed, and that the gas tax is the best way to pay for those investments.  On Wednesday, local officials testified before an interim transportation committee in support of a plan to allow localities to levy a 3 percent gas tax.  Unlike Utah’s fixed-rate gas tax—which actually stands at its lowest level in history as a result of inflation—this 3 percent tax should do a reasonably good job keeping pace with future growth in the cost of transportation construction and maintenance.  At the same hearing, a Republican state representative testified in support of his own plan to raise the state’s gas tax by 7.5 cents per gallon, phased-in over the course of five years.

The gas tax has been a frequent topic of discussion in Iowa these last few years, and it doesn’t seem like that’s about to change any time soon.  As in Utah, Iowa’s gas tax is at an all-time low (after adjusting for inflation), but one of the state’s candidates for governor in 2014 would like to change that.  Democrat Jack Hatch has proposed raising the tax by a total of 10 cents over the course of 5 years.  Current Governor Terry Branstad, who is eligible to seek reelection next year, is noticeably less excited about the idea.  But Branstad has said he won’t veto a gas tax increase if one makes it to his desk.



Good News for America's Infrastructure: Gas Taxes Are Going Up on Monday



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The federal government has gone almost two decades without raising its gas tax, but that doesn’t mean the states have to stand idly by and watch their own transportation revenues dwindle.  On Monday July 1, eight states will increase their gasoline tax rates and another eight will raise their diesel taxes.  According to a comprehensive analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), ten states will see either their gasoline or diesel tax rise next week.

These increases are split between states that recently voted for a gas tax hike, and states that reformed their gas taxes years or decades ago so that they gradually rise over time—just as the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure inevitably does.

Of the eight states raising their gasoline tax rates on July 1, Wyoming and Maryland passed legislation this year implementing those increases while Connecticut’s increase is due to legislation passed in 2005California, Kentucky, Georgia (PDF) and North Carolina, by contrast, are seeing their rates rise to keep pace with growth in gas prices—much like a typical sales tax (PDF).  Nebraska is a more unusual case since its tax rate is rising both due to an increase in gas prices and because the rate is automatically adjusted to cover the amount of transportation spending authorized by the legislature.

On the diesel tax front, Wyoming, Maryland, Virginia (PDF) and Vermont passed legislation this year to raise their diesel taxes while Connecticut, Kentucky and North Carolina are seeing their taxes rise to reflect recent diesel price growth.  Nebraska, again, is the unique state in this group.

There are, however, a few states where fuel tax rates will actually fall next week, with Virginia’s (PDF) ill-advised gasoline tax cut being the most notable example. Vermont (PDF) will see its gasoline tax fall by a fraction of a penny on Monday due to a drop in gas prices, though this follows an almost six cent hike that went into effect in May as a result of new legislation. Georgia (PDF) and California will also see their diesel tax rates fall by a penny or less due to a diesel price drop in Georgia and a reduction in the average state and local sales tax rate in California.

With new reforms enacted in Maryland and Virginia this year, there are now 16 states where gas taxes are designed to rise alongside either increases in the price of gas or the general inflation rate (two more than the 14 states ITEP found in 2011).  Depending on what happens during the ongoing gas tax debates in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, that number could rise as high as 19 in the very near future.

It seems that more states are finally recognizing that stagnant, fixed-rate gas taxes can’t possibly fund our infrastructure in the long-term and should be abandoned in favor of smarter gas taxes that can keep pace with the cost of transportation.

See ITEP’s infographic of July 1st gasoline tax increases.
See ITEP’s infographic of July 1st diesel tax increases.



Mid-Session Update on State Gas Tax Debates



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In a stark departure from the last few years, one of the most debated state tax policy issues in 2013 has been the gasoline tax (PDF).  Until this February, it had been almost three years since any state’s lawmakers approved an increase or reform of their gasoline tax.  That changed when Wyoming Governor Matt Mead signed into law a 10 cent gas tax hike passed by his state’s legislature.  Since then, Virginia has reformed its gas tax to grow over time alongside gas prices, and Maryland has both increased and reformed its gas tax.  By the time states’ 2013 legislative sessions come to a close, the list of states having improved their gas taxes is likely to be even longer.

Massachusetts appears to be the most likely candidate for gas tax reform.  Both the House and Senate have passed bills immediately raising the state gas tax by 3 cents per gallon, and reforming the tax so that its flat per-gallon amount keeps pace with inflation in the future (see chart here).  In late 2011, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) found that Massachusetts is among the states where inflation has been most damaging to the state transportation budget—costing some $451 million in revenue per year relative to where the gas tax stood in 1991 when it was last raised.  Governor Deval Patrick has expressed frustration that legislators passed plans lacking more revenue for education—in sharp contrast to his own plan to increase the income tax—but he has also signaled that there may be room for compromise.

Vermont lawmakers are also giving very serious consideration to gas tax reform.  At the Governor’s urging, the House passed a bill increasing the portion of Vermont’s gas tax that already grows alongside gas prices.  The bill also reforms the flat-rate portion of Vermont’s gas tax to grow with inflation.  The Senate is now debating the idea, and early reports indicate that the package may be tweaked to rely slightly more on diesel taxes in order to reduce the size of the increase on gasoline.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has also proposed raising and reforming his state’s gasoline tax.  While Pennsylvania’s tax is technically supposed to grow alongside gas prices, an obsolete tax cap limits the rate from rising when gas prices exceed $1.25 per gallon.  Corbett would like to remove that cap in order to improve the sustainability of the state’s revenues, and members of his administration have been traveling the state to explain how doing so would benefit Pennsylvanians.  While the legislature has yet to act on his plan, the fact that it has the backing of the state’s Chamber of Business and Industry is likely to help its chances.

In New Hampshire, the Governor has said she is open to raising the state gas tax and the House has passed a bill doing exactly that.  But there are indications that lawmakers in the state Senate might continue procrastinating on raising the tax, as the state has done for over two decades.

Nevada lawmakers are discussing a gas tax increase following the release of a report showing that the state’s outdated transportation system is costing drivers $1,500 per year.  ITEP analyzed a gas tax proposal receiving consideration in the Nevada House and found that even with the increase, the state’s gas tax rate (adjusted for inflation) would still remain low relative to its levels in years past.

Iowa lawmakers have been debating a gas tax increase for a number of years, and there may be enough support in the legislature to finally see one enacted into law.  The major stumbling block is that Governor Branstad will only agree to raise the gas tax if it’s part of a larger package that cuts revenue overall—particularly revenues from the property tax.  As we’ve explained in the past, such a move would effectively benefit the state’s roads at the expense of its schools.

Earlier this year, Washington State House lawmakers unveiled a plan raising the state’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon and increasing vehicle registration fees.  Senate leaders are reportedly less excited about the idea of a gasoline tax hike, though there are indications they would consider such an increase if it were to pass the House.  While talk of a 10 cent increase has since quieted down, there are rumors that a smaller increase could be enacted.

Unfortunately, some states where the chances of gas tax reform once appeared promising have since begun to move away from the idea.  In Michigan, while the Governor and the state Chamber of Commerce have voiced strong support for generating additional revenue through the gas tax, neither the House nor the Senate appears likely to vote in favor of such a reform this year.  Meanwhile, the chances for a gas tax increase in Minnesota seem to have faded after the Governor came out against an increase and the House subsequently unveiled a tax plan that leaves the gas tax untouched.

Overall, 2013 has already been a significant year for state gas tax reform.  Both Maryland and Virginia have abandoned their unsustainable flat gas taxes in favor of a better gas tax that grows over time, just like construction costs inevitably will.  Hopefully, within the next few months, more states will have followed their lead.



Chart: New Gas Tax Plan in Maryland House of Delegates



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UPDATE: As of March 29, 2013 this plan has passed both the House and Senate and is expected to be signed into law by the Governor.

This week, the Maryland House will vote on a plan to raise and reform the state’s gasoline tax. The plan is very similar to one proposed by Governor Martin O’Malley that our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), analyzed when it was released two weeks ago.

An updated chart from ITEP shows that Maryland’s flat gas tax has long been declining as inflation has chipped away at its value.  If the legislature does not raise the gas tax, ITEP projects that by 2014 Maryland’s gas tax rate will reach its lowest (inflation adjusted) level in 91 years. Only in 1922 and 1923 did Maryland levy a lower gas tax.

Moreover, the gas tax increase under consideration in the House, like the one proposed by the Governor, is actually very modest. The plan (which would tie the gas tax to both inflation and gas prices) would result in roughly a 12 cent increase by 2015. That’s significantly less than the nearly 16 cent increase that ITEP found would be needed to return Maryland’s gas tax to its purchasing power as of 1992, when it was last raised. Taking an even longer-term perspective, ITEP finds that Maryland’s inflation-adjusted gas tax rate has historically averaged 41.1 cents per gallon.  If the House plan is enacted, the inflation-adjusted rate over the next decade would average just 32.8 cents.



Chart: Maryland Governor O'Malley's New Gas Tax Plan



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Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley recently unveiled his plan to raise and reform his state’s gasoline tax.  Local TV stations predictably responded by interviewing drivers unhappy with the high price of gas, while (also predictably) failing to explain that Maryland’s gas taxes are not to blame for those high prices.

A new chart from our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows that Maryland’s flat gas tax has long been declining as inflation has chipped away at its value.  If the legislature does not act on the Governor’s recommendation, ITEP projects that by 2014 Maryland’s gas tax rate will reach its lowest (inflation adjusted) level in 91 years.  Only in 1922 and 1923 did Maryland levy a lower gas tax.

Moreover, the gas tax increase proposed by the Governor is actually very modest.  The plan (which would tie the gas tax to both inflation and gas prices) would result in roughly a 9 cent increase by 2014.  That’s significantly less than the nearly 16 cent increase that ITEP found would be needed to return Maryland’s gas tax to its purchasing power as of 1992, when it was last raised.  Taking an even longer-term perspective, ITEP finds that Maryland’s inflation-adjusted gas tax rate has historically averaged 41.1 cents per gallon.  If the Governor’s plan is enacted, the inflation-adjusted rate over the next decade would average just 31 cents.



Gas Tax Gains Favor in the States



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Note to Readers: This is the fifth of a six part series on tax reform trends in the states, written by The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).  Previous posts in this series have provided an overview of current trends and looked in detail at “tax swaps,” personal income tax cuts and progressive tax reforms under consideration in the states.  This post focuses on one of the most debated tax issues of 2013: raising state gasoline taxes to pay for transportation infrastructure improvements.

States don’t tend to increase their gas tax rates very often, mostly because lawmakers are afraid of being wrongly blamed for high gas prices.  The result of this rampant procrastination is that state gas tax revenues are lagging far behind what’s needed to pay for our transportation infrastructure.  Until last week, the last time a state gas tax increase was signed into law was three and a half years ago—in the summer of 2009—when lawmakers in North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia all agreed that their gas tax rates needed to go up, albeit modestly in some cases.  (Since then, some state gas taxes have also risen due to provisions automatically tying the tax to gas prices or inflation.)

But Wyoming was the state that ended the drought when Governor Matt Mead signed into law a 10 cent gas tax increase passed by the state’s legislature.  And Wyoming is not alone.  In total, lawmakers in nine states are seriously considering raising (or have already raised) their gas tax in 2013: Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming. And until recently, Virginia appeared poised to increase its gas tax, too.In addition to Governor Mead, Republican governors in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Democratic governors in Massachusetts and Vermont have proposed raising their state gas taxes despite the predictable political pushback that such proposals seem to elicit.  The plans under discussion in these four states are especially reform-minded since they would not just raise the gas tax rate today, but also allow it to grow over time as the cost of asphalt, concrete, machinery, and everything else the gas tax pays for grows too.

In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Governor Hassan has said that the state needs more funding for transportation and is open to the idea of raising the gasoline tax, among other options.  The state House is debating just such a bill right now.  The situation is similar in Maryland where Governor O’Malley, who pushed for a long-overdue gasoline tax increase last year, recently met with legislators to discuss a gas tax increase proposed this year by Senate President Mike Miller.  Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has also not ruled out an increase in the gas tax—an idea backed by the state Senate majority leader and the House Transportation Committee chair.  And in the Hawkeye State, Governor Branstad once described 2013 as “the year” to raise Iowa’s gas tax (which happens to be at an all-time low, adjusted for inflation), although he has since said that he would support doing so only after lawmakers cut the property tax.

Other states where gas tax increases have gotten a foothold so far this year include Minnesota, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, though it’s not yet clear how far those states’ debates will progress in 2013.

Across the country, no state has received more attention this year for its transportation debates than Virginia, where Governor Bob McDonnell kicked off the discussion by actually proposing to repeal the state’s gasoline tax.  But while Governor McDonnell’s idea was certainly attention-grabbing, it also failed to gain traction with most lawmakers, and the Virginia Senate responded by passing a bill actually increasing the state gasoline tax and tying it to inflation.  Since then, the preliminary details of an agreement being negotiated between House and Senate leaders are just now emerging, but early indications are that the legislature will try to cut the gas tax in the short-term, but allow the tax to rise alongside gas prices in the future.  The size of the cut will also depend on whether Congress enacts legislation empowering Virginia to collect the sales taxes owed on online purchases.

It’s good to see Virginia lawmakers looking toward the long-term with reforms that will allow the gas tax to grow over time.  But asking less of drivers through the gas tax today—when the state is facing such serious congestion problems—is fundamentally bad tax policy.  For more on the merits of the gas tax and the reforms that are needed to improve its fairness and sustainability, see Building a Better Gas Tax from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).



Governor McDonnell's Bad Idea: Eliminating Virginia's Gas Tax



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Perhaps he was just floating a trial balloon when Governor Bob McDonnell said he was open to increasing Virginia’s gas tax in some way.  If so, it seems to have been a lead balloon because this week he announced his intention to eliminate the gas tax altogether.

But, experts at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy have concluded that the Commonwealth’s gas tax actually needs to be raised by 14.5 cents per gallon, right now, just to make up the revenue ground it’s lost having been stagnant for a quarter century.

Calling the gas tax an unviable revenue source (which is true only when lawmakers like McDonnell fail to modernize it!), the Governor proposed replacing it by raising the sales tax (from 5 percent to 5.8 percent) and increasing vehicle registration fees by $15 for most vehicles and $100 for alternative fuel vehicles.

McDonnells’ plan is riddled with flaws. For starters, this “tax swap” shifts the responsibility for paying for roads away from frequent and long-distance drivers (and the owners of heavier passenger vehicles), onto everybody else.  He very literally gives drivers a “free ride” by eliminating the gas tax, likely leading to more congestion, more wear-and-tear on roads, more air pollution and probably even excessive sprawl in the long run.

Oddly, by repealing only the gasoline tax and leaving the diesel tax untouched, his plan also discriminates sharply between motorists depending on the type of fuel they use to fill up.  The aim here is clearly to continue requiring the trucking industry to pay for their use of the roads (since heavy, diesel-powered trucks produce a disproportionate amount of wear-and-tear, as the Governor understands).  But many light trucks, vans and even some passenger vehicles run on diesel as well, and owners of these vehicles will see their sales taxes rise but won’t see any benefit from the gas tax cut.

McDonnell’s plan also does nothing to improve the fairness of Virginia’s taxes from a progressivity perspective, since both gas and sales taxes are regressive.  If the Governor were instead using a progressive income tax increase to fund transportation, at least he could argue that his plan improves Virginia taxes from an ability-to-pay perspective, even if it makes tax fairness much worse from a “benefits principle” (PDF) perspective—that is, a taxing in accordance with the benefits a given taxpayer receives.

Aside from the changes in tax policy, the Governor’s plan includes an expensive bailout of the transportation fund, when that fund could easily be fixed through gas tax reform.  The legislature has rejected such bailouts in the past for the very good reason that the state can’t afford to spend less on education and the other services which will necessarily have to be cut to fund McDonnells’ bailout.



Tax Fairness Prevails at the State Ballot Box



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Last night Americans in states from coast to coast cast their ballots on a wide range of tax and budget issues.  On the whole, they should feel proud of their choices.

Generally, just as voters nationally favored a presidential candidate who supports higher taxes on the best-off Americans and made tax fairness a centerpiece of his candidacy, when given the opportunity at the state level to raise taxes on, or reject tax cuts for, the wealthy, voters overwhelmingly were on the side of fairness. In California Governor Jerry Brown’s revenue raising plan, which increases income taxes on the richest Californians and raises the sales tax by a quarter cent, passed handily. Californians also voted to repeal a special billion-dollar tax break for multi-state corporations. In Oregon, voters shot down a measure that would have repealed the state’s estate tax and allowed family members to transfer property tax-free. Oregonians also voted to eliminate the state’s “corporate kicker” refund program. Instead of providing a tax rebate to corporate income taxpayers when total corporate tax revenues exceed expectations, now that excess revenue will be used to support K-12 education.

The vote on the Oregon “kicker” refund was part of a broader rejection of measures designed to strangle future revenue growth in the states.  Voters in Florida rejected both a “TABOR” style state tax limitation and a cap on local property tax increases. Michigan voters decisively rejected a measure that would have required a two-thirds vote of each legislative chamber to eliminate any tax break or raise any tax rate.  And New Hampshire voters opted not to ratify a constitutional amendment that would have handcuffed future lawmakers by banning them from ever enacting a tax on earned income (which the state does not currently levy).

Unfortunately, some lower-profile efforts to curb state revenue growth met with success.  Oklahoma slightly tightened an existing cap on its property tax, and Arizona created a new property tax cap. Washington voters also approved a statutory change requiring a supermajority vote of the legislature to raise taxes, though since the requirement is not enshrined in the state’s constitution it’s possible for lawmakers to work around it as they have similar limitations in the past.

Proposals to increase taxes that fall most heavily on middle- and low-income Americans, like the sales tax and cigarette tax, generally didn’t fare as well as the more progressive tax plan put before California voters. In Arizona and South Dakota, measures that would have increased the sales tax rate were rejected handily, and Missouri voters rejected a measure that would have hiked the cigarette tax. Arkansas voters, however, gave their approval to a half cent sales tax increase that state lawmakers had already passed.

Below is a complete listing of the results for the state tax ballot initiatives we’ve been following:

Arizona Proposition 204 FAILED
Proposition 204 would have made permanent a temporary 1 percent sales tax increase that voters approved in 2010, and that is scheduled to expire in mid-2013.

Arizona Proposition 117 PASSED
Proposition 117 limits property taxes by preventing the taxable assessed value of properties from rising by more than 5 percent per year.

Arkansas Issue #1  PASSED
Issue #1 amends the Arkansas constitution to allow for a temporary increase in the state’s sales tax to pay for large-scale transportation needs like highways, bridges, and county roads.

California Proposition 30 PASSED and Proposition 38 FAILED
Governor Jerry Brown’s revenue raising measure, Proposition 30, won handily while the rival revenue raising proposal was defeated.  Proposition 30 will raise significant revenue to stave off cuts to education through a tax hike on wealthy Californians and sales tax increase.

California Proposition 39  PASSED
California voters supported Proposition 39 which repeals a billion dollar tax break for multi-national corporations.

Florida Amendment 3 FAILED
Amendment 3 would have created a Colorado-style TABOR (or “Taxpayer Bill of Rights”) limit on state revenue growth, based on a formula tied to population and cost-of-living growth.

Florida Amendment 4 FAILED
Amendment 4 would have cut property taxes for businesses, non-residents, and Floridians with multiple homes by capping growth in the taxable value of their properties at no more than 5 percent per year.

Michigan Proposal 5 FAILED
Proposal 5 would have amended the state constitution to require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to raise revenue either by increasing tax rates or eliminating special tax breaks.

Missouri Proposition B FAILED
Proposition B would have increased the state’s cigarette tax by 73 cents to 90 cents a pack.

New Hampshire Question 1 FAILED
Voters rejected Question 1 which would have enshrined a permanent ban on taxing earned income into the Granite State’s constitution.  New Hampshire is already one of nine states without a broad-based personal income tax.

Oklahoma State Question 758 PASSED
State Question 758 tightens the state’s property tax cap by limiting increases in home’s taxable assessed value to 3 percent per year, rather than the previous limit of 5 percent.

Oklahoma State Question 766 PASSED
State Question 766 creates a new exemption for certain corporations’ intangible property, such as mineral interests, trademarks, and software.

Oregon Measure 84 FAILED
Voters rejected Measure 84 which would have eliminated the state’s inheritance and estate tax and allowed for tax-free property transfers between family members.

Oregon Measure 85 PASSED
Voters approved Measure 85 choosing to eliminate Oregon’s “corporate kicker” refund program which provides a rebate to corporate income taxpayers when total state corporate income tax revenue collections exceed the forecast by two or more percent. Now, the excess revenue above collections will go to the state’s General Fund to support K-12 education.

Oregon Measure 79 PASSED
Measure 79 constitutionally bans the state from levying real estate transfer taxes and fees even though such taxes are currently nonexistent in Oregon.

South Dakota Initiated Measure #15 FAILED
Initiated Measure #15 would have raised the state’s sales tax by one cent, from 4 to 5 percent. The additional revenue raised would have been split between two funding priorities: Medicaid and K-12 public schools.

Washington Initiative 1185  PASSED
Initiative 1185 requires a supermajority of the legislature or a vote of the people to raise revenue.



To Know the Gas Tax Is To Love the Gas Tax



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Over 30 million Americans will take to the roads this Memorial Day weekend, and it’s all but guaranteed that many of them will be unhappy about the price of gas.  But while it’s easy to get frustrated by high prices at the pump, it’s also important that motorists realize gas taxes are not to blame for those high prices, and that gas taxes are absolutely essential to the safety and efficiency of the infrastructure we use everyday.

As the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains in a pair of new policy briefs, federal and state gas taxes are the main sources of funding for the roads, bridges, and transit systems that keep our economy moving (and that make our summer vacations possible).  Roughly 90 percent of federal transportation revenues come from the federal gas tax, while state gas taxes are the single most important source of transportation revenue under the control of state lawmakers.

Moreover, the amount of money we’re spending on gas taxes is much lower than what we used to pay. Families today are spending a smaller share of their household budgets on gas taxes than they have in about three decades—and that share is continuing to decline.

Of course, a low gas tax has a cost.  The federal government is increasingly using borrowed money to pay for our roads and bridges, while states that lack the luxury of borrowing are taking money away from education and other priorities in order to fund basic road repairs.  Meanwhile, even with these infusions of cash, the condition of our transportation infrastructure is continuing to decline.

ITEP’s new policy briefs put this issue into perspective by explaining how gas taxes work, their importance as a transportation revenue source, the specific problems confronting gas taxes, and the types of gas tax reforms that are needed to overcome these problems.

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Photo of man pumping gas via Teresia Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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